In ancient literature you will find children, but you will not find childhood. The children portrayed in ancient texts are incomplete adults. They do not reach adulthood by passing through a world of their own, in which magic forces overcome all threats and maintain a regime of comforts. They do not enjoy a special kind of innocence, nor do they have an art and a literature in which children and their imagined companions take centre stage.
It is not clear when childhood was invented. However, it is certain that the German romantics are partly responsible for the way it is seen now. Drawing on the folk tales of the brothers Grimm, and the poems collected in Das Knaben Wunderhorn, they created a spiritual and aesthetic realm full of the adult longing to return to a primordial experience of enchantment. And the German composers joined in, as we witness in the idealized children portrayed in a series of works from Schumann’s Kinderszene to Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Without their conception of childhood there would be no such event as Christmas, and the rise of Christmas in place of Easter as the principal Christian festival has much to do with the tacit sense that, in these times, it is only in children that the vestiges of faith remain.
Children’s literature derives from fairy tales addressed specifically to the child’s state of mind, and which play with the residue of hunter-gatherer terrors. But in more recent times was born a literature that is aimed not at the child but at the idea of the child, literature that frames the childish mind, treasures it and also uses it to convey truths about adult reality. Works of this second kind include some of the masterpieces of our literature, including the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, Saint-Éxupery’s tales of le petit Prince, and Mark Twain’s story of Huckleberry Finn. Children’s literature of this modern kind is about the world as it really is, but written in such a way as to put the innocence and guilelessness of the child in the centre of the narrative, so questioning the lies and hypocrisy on which the adult community has been built.
The Victorian and Edwardian literature of childhood remains with us, an inescapable reminder of home, family and countryside, as the British once conceived them. And a new kind of childhood literature has been added to the classics, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories – stories of children in their first teenage years, still clinging to a kind of innocence, in that last moment when good and evil are clearly discernible, battling for possession of the individual soul, before sex takes over.
We propose a discussion around the idea of childhood, as represented in art, music and literature, as studied by theologians and philosophers, and as represented in the culture of today. In this mirror, we suspect, the whole of modern life is now reflected.